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Our View: Random shootings will test good Samaritan capacity

We admit, we’re a little jittery approaching strangers after a surge in recent, seemingly random shootings. In April, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot twice after ringing the doorbell at the wrong house in Missouri as he was trying to pick up his siblings. In upstate New York, Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed after her boyfriend pulled into the wrong driveway as they searched for a friend’s home. In Texas, two cheerleaders were shot after one accidentally got into a vehicle that she thought was her own. A North Carolina man allegedly shot a girl, 6, her parents and another neighbor after a basketball rolled into his yard.

These shootings happened far from the Southwest. Nonetheless, we have some apprehension. It may not be as instinctual to move quickly to help a stranger in need as we once did. The cost of this fear could mean we’ll lose our capacity to be good Samaritans.

We’re not even talking about assistance on a grand scale, but something smaller or even convenient for another person. A few recent opportunities revealed moments of our hesitation. Flagging down a driver with a wobbly wheel. Checking on passengers in a stalled vehicle in a cellphone dead zone. Dropping off a payment to a laborer on an unfamiliar street at an unknown house.

What if we had startled armed residents – afraid of us – who were trigger-happy?

Fear is oftentimes just that. Even if there’s no real data to back up why it’s there.

From 1965 to 2021, Gallup polls have consistently found that Americans believe crime is going up, whether or not it is. What has increased is the perception that crime is pervasive. So, jacked-up fear without the actual crime.

Also, we don’t have data that shows more guns keep people and communities safer. About 30 careful studies reviewed by Scientific American in October 2017 linked more guns to more crime – not less.

Eighty-four-year-old Andrew D. Lester, who is white, shot Yarl, who is Black. According to Lester’s grandson, the shooter immersed himself in a “24-hour news cycle of fear and paranoia.” Shoot first, figure it out later. Lester was probably afraid of Yarl.

Some key legal principles are likely to come up in shooting defendants’ cases, including self-defense, the “castle doctrine” and stand your ground.

To claim traditional self-defense, the defendant cannot be the first aggressor. There must be a duty to retreat, meaning a reasonable effort to avoid confrontation by de-escalation or getting the heck out of there.

The “castle doctrine” differs from self-defense because there’s no duty to retreat if you’re in your castle – your home – where you can use deadly force.

The stand your ground law says you don’t need to have a duty to retreat anywhere you are lawfully allowed to be. It’s like taking the protection from prosecution in your home out onto the streets – a parking lot, grocery store. Anywhere. (Colorado does not have a stand your ground law.)

Stand your ground is the wild card. We’ll watch for the outcomes. But mostly, this surge in random shootings brings up a basic question. How do we view our time on this planet? And whether we are here to be of service to each other – to help, comfort and support those we encounter, when we can. But, these days, is offering a helping hand worth the risk of taking a bullet?

The reasonable part of our minds says “yes.” Getting shot is unlikely. The connection is worthwhile.

Generally, we’ve been missing connections with strangers in this country, which can stoke real or imagined concerns of impending danger. We’re more isolated, alone and attached to our devices.

This week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy will act on this state of our union by proposing a national framework to rebuild social connection and community. “The epidemic of loneliness and isolation has fueled other problems that are killing us and threaten to rip our country apart,” Murthy wrote in The New York Times on Sunday.

Including gun violence.

“Given these extraordinary costs, rebuilding social connection must be a top public health priority for our nation,” Murthy said. “It will require reorienting ourselves, our communities, and our institutions to prioritize human connection and healthy relationships.

“The good news is we know how to do this.”